Category Archives: Education

Done: Arkansas students have fast internet

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson
Gov. Asa Hutchinson shakes hands with Yessica Jones, Department of Information Systems director, at Glen Rose.

By Steve Brawner

It’s not often a public policy problem can be completely checked off the to-do list. Last month, one was.

That’s when 100 percent of Arkansas’ school districts reached broadband internet connections of 200 kilobits per second per student. That’s twice the national standard, at no more cost than the previous slower speeds. According to the group Education Superhighway, only five states had reached the 100 kbps standard as of 2016, though others may do so along with Arkansas this year.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson marked the occasion July 21 in Glen Rose, a small school district between Benton and Malvern. It had been one of the state’s last districts to obtain its high-speed fiber connection the previous week.

A remarkable turnaround

The milestone is a remarkable turnaround for a state that until recently was making headlines for being behind the times. The Foundation for Excellence in Education slapped Arkansas with a “D” in its 2013 “Digital Learning Now” report. A 2014 study found the state had spent almost $160 million with vendors on the Arkansas Public School Computer Network since 1992. But instead of investing in high-speed options like fiber, it was spending 70 percent of the budget on antiquated copper wiring, delivering information at a measly 5 kbps. By supplementing APSCN with private providers, 58 percent of Arkansas districts were meeting the 100 kbps standard. However, 17 percent offered speeds of only 10-49 kbps, while 5 percent were even slower.

The problem snuck up on policymakers but was exposed when the state started adopting the Common Core curriculum. Then there was a big, very political argument about schools hooking up to the universities’ and hospitals’ network.

Under Hutchinson, state a leader in coding movement

That’s all in the rear-view mirror now, and much of the credit belongs to Hutchinson. The 66-year-old has been a forward-thinking leader regarding public school technology. Most notably, he kept a campaign promise that Arkansas would become the first state to require high schools to teach computer coding. As a result, the number of students taking those classes has increased from 691 to 5,500. A story by the influential Wired magazine was headlined, “So, Arkansas is leading the learn to code movement.”

But computer coding skills don’t mean much without modern internet connections. After becoming governor in 2015, Hutchinson ordered the creation of a statewide broadband network and placed it under the supervision of the Department of Information Systems. Previously, DIS shared responsibility with the Department of Education. Those changes improved the state’s negotiating position with the Federal Communications Commission for its E-rate program, which is paying about 79 percent of the costs. Meanwhile, the state negotiated rates with private vendors, some of which waived their fees.

As a result of all of this, the state will provide the 200 kbps for about $13-$14 million annually, or about the same amount it was spending before. It’s up to the individual districts to build out their networks from their hubs to their outlying schools. That’s not expected to be a problem, and they can choose to spend more for higher speeds. Now, internet access will not be a barrier whether students are in Glen Rose, Fort Smith, Jonesboro or Pine Bluff.

What now?

But what do educators and students do with that access? Everyone with a broadband connection or a smartphone knows high-speed internet is both an awesome tool and an awful distraction. It can make us more connected, but also less so, and more powerful but also more passive. An inspired teacher with a history book and a chalkboard can impart more knowledge than a poor one with a blazing fast internet connection.

Still, while tools don’t assure success, they help more than they hurt. So now Arkansas students, so often in the past disadvantaged compared to their peers, have this one on their side: Their internet access is as good as anyone’s in the country and better than many, regardless of where in the state they call home.

That’s not bad for a state that was falling behind the times not long ago, and was stuck in a very political argument about what to do about it.

© 2017 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

The return of recess?

By Steve Brawner
© 2017 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

Can more time in recess and less time in class help students learn better? That’s a question some schools in Arkansas will try to help answer.

Under state law, elementary students must have 40 minutes of physical education each week and 90 minutes of additional physical activity, such as recess. That’s 18 minutes per day.

Act 1062 sets up a pilot program for the 2018-19 school year that basically triples that amount in some schools. In addition to physical education, students in grades K-4 will get 60 minutes of “unstructured and undirected play” each day, while students in grades five and six will have 45 minutes. Two schools in each of the state’s 15 education service cooperatives – groups of school districts that share resources – will participate, along with two more schools not involved in cooperatives. The Arkansas Department of Education will write the rules. The results will be studied and used to enact future policy.

The law was sponsored by two legislators on opposite sides of the political spectrum – Sen. Gary Stubblefield, R-Branch, a conservative farmer, and Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, a former teacher and one of the Senate’s most liberal members.

The background for this is when the federal No Child Left Behind law was passed in 2001, schools were held more accountable for their students’ test scores, and as a result, they began to focus more on core academic subjects. With the stakes raised higher, recess was considered an expendable part of the day and reduced.

In recent years, many have questioned the wisdom of that philosophy, for several reasons, the obvious one being health. One in five school-aged children is now obese – triple the percentage of the 1970s, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Spending more time sitting and less time playing certainly doesn’t help.

But there are also potential academic and social benefits to recess, which may help explain why students who get more breaks elsewhere, like Finland, outperform American students. According to a 2013 paper by the American Academy of Pediatrics, children benefit when concentrated learning is followed by unstructured play. Research by Anthony Pellegrini and Catherine Bohn found that recess made students more attentive and productive in class whether they were outdoors or indoors. Moreover, students learn important social skills when engaged in unsupervised play away from adults.

It’s unclear how many schools will volunteer to participate. Sixty minutes a day is a lot of time to take kids away from the classroom. Not only will it require a major reconfiguration of the school day – for a one-year program – but it also will require schools to take the risk that the reduced instruction time won’t hurt test scores.

Moreover, much has changed in the past couple of decades. Americans don’t do “unstructured and undirected” very well anymore when it comes to children. We’ve become a more risk-averse, less playful society, so what’s the response if more recess means more kids get injured or bullied or suffer some other bad outcome? What happens if we give the kids time to play and develop their social skills, and all they do is stare at their phones?

The way these things work is that the Legislature passes a law with broad goals, the agency sets the specific rules, and school districts implement them based on their local situations.

So here’s a couple of suggestions. First, the research shows that kids need a lot of short breaks to recharge their minds, not hours sitting in class and then an hour on the playground. In Finland, it’s 45 minutes of learning followed by 15 minutes off. Let’s do something like that. Second, the Department of Education should interpret “unstructured and undirected play” loosely so that teachers still can offer helpful guidance when appropriate – maybe show the kids how to play kickball, and then get out of the way.

The question isn’t going to be whether recess is beneficial for students. That one’s already been answered. The real questions are, how much recess is best, and how best can it be implemented?

Can those questions be answered with a one-year pilot program? Don’t ask me. I’ve been working on this column for hours, and I need a break. Kickball, anyone?

Blessed is the peacemaker

Rep. George McGill, D-Fort Smith, left, and Rep. Andy Mayberry, R-Hensley, share an embrace after McGill’s speech.
By Steve Brawner
© 2017 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

Over the course of a three-month session, legislators make thousands of speeches at the Capitol. Last Friday, Rep. George McGill, D-Fort Smith, gave one of the most memorable – ever.

The issue was Senate Bill 519 by Sen. David Wallace, R-Leachville, and Rep. Grant Hodges, R-Rogers, which reserves each third Monday in January as a day to honor Dr. Martin Luther King.

This year, Arkansas was one of three states, the others being Alabama and Mississippi, that honored King and Gen. Robert E. Lee on the same day – the result of an unfortunate historical coincidence along with a lack of sensitivity. In 1947, Arkansas made a state holiday out of Lee’s birthday Jan. 19. King’s birthday was made a federal holiday in 1983, which meant there would be two state holidays at about the same time each year. Lawmakers did not want state employees to have another paid vacation day, so in 1985, Gov. Bill Clinton signed a bill combining the holidays.

It’s impossible to know every lawmaker’s intentions in 1985, but regardless, for some people it reasonably has felt like this once-Confederate state was unwilling to give Dr. King his own day. Visitors to the State Capitol on the holiday have been greeted by a sign saying offices were closed to celebrate both King, the civil rights leader, and Lee, the Southern Civil War general. For some, that combination was hurtful.

Two years ago, legislators made an effort to separate the holidays, but it failed under heavy pressure from opponents and fans of Lee and because of the Legislature’s general aversion to upsetting the status quo. For a mostly white Legislature, the combined holiday didn’t seem that big of a deal.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson, newly elected at the time, supported that bill but did nothing to pass it. This year, he announced before the session that a separate King Holiday was one of his priorities, and he testified about the bill before House and Senate committees – the first time he has done so.

The bill says Arkansas will now celebrate only King’s birthday on each third Monday in January while Robert E. Lee Day will be the second Saturday in October – a state memorial day, not a holiday, coinciding with the time of his death. Schools are required to develop teaching materials about the civil rights struggle and the Civil War corresponding to those days.

That arrangement felt to some legislators less like a separation and more like a demotion for Lee. On the House floor Friday, one said it appeared the state was ashamed of its past. Another feared the next step was to remove the star in Arkansas’ flag commemorating its membership in the Confederacy. There was some emotion in the room.

That’s when stately, gray-haired McGill sensed the mood and made his way to the well. “Good afternoon,” he said with a smile, and then repeated the greeting so the House would return it. He then spoke highly by name of his fellow legislators, including one who had vocally opposed the King bill.

Speaking off the cuff, he talked about his great-great-grandfather, also named George McGill, who had fought in the war on the Union side, and he wondered what it had been like for him when the war ended. Did they let him keep his weapon or give him rations? He talked about his own experiences at the University of Arkansas when he was denied a dormitory room because of his race. Looking back at his youth, he recalled his afro hairstyle, his use of the black power salute, and his vow never to return to the University of Arkansas – now, he said, “one of my favorite places to go.”

McGill told House members that Senate Bill 519 would be just one more piece of paper stuck in a big binder in a room full of other big binders. What mattered, he said, was legislators were giving educators space to teach about the past.

No way anyone was following that speech. The vote was 66-11, with 5 voting present and the rest not voting. Hutchinson signed the bill into law Tuesday.

McGill’s biggest accomplishment wasn’t the passage of the bill. It was going to pass anyway. His greatest achievement was bringing healing to what was becoming a racially divisive moment in a chamber that has seen many others through the decades. He reminded everyone listening that it’s possible, even necessary, to both remember and forgive.

He was a peacemaker. Someone once said such are blessed.

Note: Here is the speech. Great job, Brian Fanney.

Death, taxes and Lake View

By Steve Brawner
© 2017 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

We’ve all heard the old Benjamin Franklin adage that the only certainties in life are death and taxes. For many years Arkansans have been able to add “public schools getting more money” to that list.

That’s because of a series of 1992-2007 court decisions in a case initially filed by the Lake View School District, a small, poor district in the Delta. Those decisions clarified that the state has a constitutional responsibility to ensure schools everywhere are adequate and equitable. The decisions basically required the state to fund schools first without regard to how much money was readily available or how it would affect other state priorities.

Since then, any debate about public school funding started and ended with two words: “Lake” and “View.” Nobody has wanted a repeat of that experience, where judges, justices and special masters stood over the state’s shoulder making sure it was filling in all the circles to their satisfaction.

As a result, while other states have cut education funding, Arkansas has always increased it – not by much lately, but by at least enough to stay out of court. In fact, the state’s public school districts not only have enough to fund their operations but between them have saved up $790 million in their net legal balances. A bill filed this legislative session by Rep. Mark Lowery, R-Maumelle, would require districts to keep no more than 20 percent of their revenues in those balances and use the rest for other purposes.

This year, as in years past, a legislative committee decided months ago that schools would receive an increase – this time about 1 percent in total per pupil foundation funding, the primary way schools are funded. Under that so-called adequacy report, whose recommendations the full Legislature generally accepts with little debate, in 2018 each school district will receive $6,713 per pupil, and that’s not including numerous other sources of local, state and federal funding that pushed the cost of educating each Arkansas student to about $9,400 as of 2013, according to the Census Bureau.

That’s right. If you have two kids in school, you’re getting about $19,000 worth of government benefits every year, and that’s before you drive on a road, call a fire department, get help with your parents’ health care costs through Medicare and/or Medicaid, or are protected by the military and law enforcers.

Anyway, back to Lake View, which is very slowly exerting less control, as evidenced by the fact that the 1 percent increase was less than it used to be, for a lot of reasons. One, naturally, is that the longer something fades into the past, the less it’s remembered, and there aren’t many policymakers left in Little Rock who were serving when all those Lake View decisions were coming down from the courts. Meanwhile, some state expenses have continued to rise – a good example being health care – at the same time that schools have always been guaranteed a raise. Plus, legislators always want to cut taxes, and that’s harder to do when you always must spend more money on schools.

Finally, there’s this really, really important fact: There are no Supreme Court justices left who had anything to do with those Lake View decisions. The last, Justice Paul Danielson, retired after the 2016 elections. No other justice has been on the court longer than since 2010, so no one knows how they would rule if Lake View were to be reconsidered. For what it’s worth, some of those justices have ruled in one 2012 case, Kimbrell v. McCleskey, that went a little against Lake View by saying certain school districts that collect extra money through property taxes can keep them rather than share them with other districts.

So schools have gotten a lot of money for a long time, other needs must be addressed, legislators always would love to cut taxes, and a whole new cast of policymakers remember less and less about Lake View, and are less scared of stepping past the vague line it drew in the sand. Plus, lawyers can make some pretty good money suing the state over this stuff.

So here’s a prediction and another certainty. The prediction is the state will wind up in another school funding case eventually.

The certainty is that it won’t be called “Lake View.” That district was forced to consolidate with Barton-Lexa in 2004 and no longer exists.